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Bosnia and Herzegovina: Young environmental activists face baseless defamation charges from Belgian-owned hydropower company in Bosnia

Ahead of a court hearing on Monday in Istočno Sarajevo, Amnesty International urges BUK, a  hydropower company owned by Belgian-based Green Invest to drop their defamation suits against two local activists who publicly expressed concerns about the potential environmental impact of the company’s small hydropower plants on the Kasindolska river.

Sunčica Kovačević and Sara Tuševljak, the two activists, received the lawsuits after they challenged environmental permits granted to the company, and publicly voiced their concerns about the potential irreparable damage to the river and its surrounding ecosystem. 

The Bosnian company BUK, which is fully owned by Belgian company Green Invest, operates one small hydropower plant and plans to construct two additional ones on the Kasindolska river. Earlier this year, BUK filed three defamation lawsuits against the two activists, seeking 7,500 EURO in damages and threatening further legal action if the activists continue speaking publicly on the issue.

Time and time again, we have seen how powerful corporations try to intimidate those who speak out against them. When faced with public scrutiny, corporations are increasingly filing untrue or abusive claims to silence critical voices and discourage further debate on matters of public importance. Sunčica and Sara are facing these baseless lawsuits simply because they publicly criticized uncontrolled deforestation and soil erosion that they believed occurred as a result of the construction of these hydropower dams on a river near where they grew up

Eve Geddie, Director of Amnesty International’s European Institutions Office

“Time and time again, we have seen how powerful corporations try to intimidate those who speak out against them. When faced with public scrutiny, corporations are increasingly filing untrue or abusive claims to silence critical voices and discourage further debate on matters of public importance. Sunčica and Sara are facing these baseless lawsuits simply because they publicly criticized uncontrolled deforestation and soil erosion that they believed occurred as a result of the construction of these hydropower dams on a river near where they grew up” said Eve Geddie, Director of Amnesty International’s European Institutions Office.

Amnesty International has analysed legal documents and other materials related to the cases and concluded that the lawsuits bear  the hallmarks of Strategic Lawsuits for Public Participation (SLAPPs), including aggressive and disproportionate remedies sought by the corporation and an apparent attempt to exploit their economic and political power to stifle the activists.

“Sunčica and Sara are among a growing number of young activists across BiH and the wider region who are standing up against the seemingly unchecked exploitation of natural resources by large multinational companies. They are demanding that the authorities properly assess the long-term risks of these energy projects, consult with the people who are directly impacted by them, and exercise greater oversight over development projects, instead of solely prioritizing profit,” said Eve Geddie.

“To add insult to injury, these unfounded defamation claims come from a company from Belgium who has no stake in the environment or life here. They have not spent their life on this river: they haven’t enjoyed its beauty, nor can they see what the construction of small hydropower plants has done to it and the forest around it. We get the impression that the foreign company  claims more rights to the river than we who were born and live here,” said Sunčica Kovačević, one of the activists. 

“Green Invest and their subsidiary in Bosnia should immediately withdraw these lawsuits, and allow people to freely debate the impact of their hydropower plants on the local community. The authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina must guarantee a safe and enabling environment in which environmental defenders can express their concerns without fear of legal reprisals, including by protecting activists and journalists from this vexatious use of the law,” said Eve Geddie.

Censorious lawsuits a barrier to public participation

SLAPPs are lawsuits that seek to silence or intimidate those who publicly criticize or expose the wrongdoing of those in power, including governments and corporations. SLAPPs  unduly restrict the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association and discourage the public from exposing wrongful conduct by those in power.

SLAPPs usually seek unfounded or disproportionate damages, with the intention of intimidating or silencing critical voices on issues of public interest, such as the environment. SLAPPs are increasingly being used to muzzle the work of human rights defenders and journalists across Europe.

“The lawsuits that Sunčica and Sara are facing fit within a growing trend of powerful corporations and officials misusing the justice system to intimidate human rights defenders and shield themselves from public scrutiny. SLAPPs can have a potentially devastating effect on public debate and create an increasingly hostile environment for anyone who speaks out on issues of public interest, including journalists, human rights defenders and civil society organizations,” said Eve Geddie.

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Background

In an effort to replace its old coal-fired power stations, BiH has embraced the construction of hydropower plants. Encouraged by credits available for renewable projects, national authorities have offered generous subsidies to encourage further investment in the sector.  Laws protecting the environment, however, are either weak or poorly enforced and, combined with weak institutions, this led to the unchecked expansion of projects that prioritize profits over the environment.

Sunčica Kovačević and Sara Tuševljak  raised concerns about the environmental impact of BUK/Green Invest’s hydropower plants in media appearances. Having observed what they believed was excessive deforestation in the protected area and soil erosion associated with the construction of access roads for the hydropower plants, the activists questioned the legality of environmental permits that were issued  to BUK by the authorities.

Sunčica Kovačević and Sara Tuševljak form part of a group of activists and local community members that has been objecting to the construction of small hydropower plants on the Kasindolska river since 2017. The group has organized peaceful protests, press conferences, a civil initiative that gained more than 2,000 signatures against the construction of the small hydropower plants, and a photo exhibition showcasing the river and the anticipated implications of further hydropower construction. Their campaign gained support from the mayors of all three affected municipalities.

SLAPP suits are increasingly perceived as a serious threat to the rights of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in Europe. Amnesty International welcomes ongoing efforts at the European Union and the Council of Europe to adopt initiatives to prevent and combat the effects of SLAPPs. These initiatives should set a minimum standard for protection against SLAPPs, such as by ensuring that courts can quicky identify and dismiss unfounded or abusive lawsuits early in the proceedings; prescribe sanctions for litigants who abuse the law with the intention of silencing or intimidating critical voices; and provide procedural safeguards, including free legal assistance and effective remedies to the victims of SLAPP suits.

Over 140 national and international organisations have recently expressed their support for Sunčica Kovačević and Sara Tuševljak and their concerns over the baseless defamation lawsuits in an open letter to the Belgian Ambassador to BiH and the Head of the European Union Delegation in the country.